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Fancy Footwork With a slashing Charlie Garner juicing up the attack, Oakland has regained its stride

Four days before the Oakland Raiders' AFC wild-card playoff,
Charlie Garner limped into his house in Alameda, Calif., and
found something daunting in the doorway: his three-year-old
daughter, Nari. The Raiders' running back dotes on his little
girl, and her sparkling eyes and outstretched arms warm his heart
like nothing else. Today was different, though. Garner's bruised
right foot was swollen and throbbing after New York Jets
linebacker Mo Lewis had fallen on top of it in Oakland's 24-22
loss in the regular-season finale two days earlier, and Garner's
status for last Saturday's rematch was very much in doubt. He had
hobbled around the team's training facility, and now he couldn't
give his daughter the attention she coveted.

"Is Daddy sore?" Nari inquired as Garner made his way through the

"Yes," he replied.

"Can we go to Chuck E. Cheese's?"

Garner grinned but told her that he couldn't play with her. "She
gets all my time when we're out of season," Garner says, "but
right now, I'm all business."

That evening Garner performed what would become a daily ritual
until game day. He stretched across his living room sofa,
elevated his right foot before falling asleep and prayed that
Nari wouldn't treat him like her personal jungle gym the next
morning. As it turned out, Garner, who missed two practices in a
short week, needed every last bit of rest to help the Raiders
play with an energy they had sorely lacked over the last six
weeks of the season, when they had gone 2-4.

Led by Garner's 158 rushing yards (the first 100-yard game by an
Oakland back this season) and a banner day for 39-year-old wide
receiver Jerry Rice (nine receptions, 183 yards), the Raiders
beat the Jets 38-24 at Network Associates Coliseum and regained
their Super Bowl-contender status. Against New York, an Oakland
offense that had become predictable and sloppy piled up 502 yards
and four touchdowns, and committed no turnovers. "We have to
score touchdowns if we're going to go far in the playoffs," Pro
Bowl right tackle Lincoln Kennedy said after the game. "We'd been
kicking too many field goals lately."

The Raiders dictated the tempo from the start. They ran a
hurry-up offense on the opening drive, with Garner touching the
ball five times (three on runs, two on receptions), and
concluded the possession with a 21-yard field goal by Sebastian
Janikowski. That early commitment to the running game afforded
Rice more opportunities against single coverage, which he had
rarely seen in the loss to New York the previous week. As a
result he made five catches of 20 yards or longer, including a
21-yard touchdown reception that gave Oakland a 31-17 lead with
5:53 left. After the Jets had closed to within seven points on a
four-yard touchdown pass from Vinny Testaverde to Wayne Chrebet,
Garner supplied the clincher.

The Raiders faced third-and-11 at their 20-yard line with 1:40
remaining when coach Jon Gruden called 98 Bunch Crunch, a power
sweep to the right. Following the blocks of Kennedy and tight end
Roland Williams, Garner found an alley, raced to the sideline and
sped untouched to the end zone. "They knew we'd be blitzing to
stop the clock, and Garner caught a seam," said Jets cornerback
Ray Mickens. "They said his foot was bothering him, but it didn't
look as if he was having any problems today."

This game showed why Oakland signed Garner to a four-year, $10
million free-agent contract during the off-season. The
eight-year veteran is a slashing runner with excellent hands and
route-running ability. Gruden loved those skills when Garner was
with the Philadelphia Eagles and Gruden was the team's offensive
coordinator, from 1995 to '97, but they weren't fully
appreciated elsewhere until he generated 2,371 rushing yards,
124 receptions and 16 touchdowns over the last two seasons with
the San Francisco 49ers. Along the way Garner erased doubts
about his durability that had been elicited by his relatively
small size (5'9", 190 pounds). With the Raiders emphasizing the
passing game this season, Garner suffered a drop-off in rushing
production (839 yards and a 4.0 average per carry, compared with
1,142 and 4.4 in 2000), but he was most valuable in the way that
Gruden said he would be: His 72 catches were a career high.

"He's the whole package for Oakland because he [fits into] their
pass game," says Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas. "They
love to get him on a linebacker. His gift is putting moves on
you to get into the open space and running that rock. He loves
to make you look bad."

Garner has become popular among his teammates, gaining respect
for his toughness and for understanding such nuances of his
position as picking up blitzes and spotting a defense's flaws.
He settled in with fellow backs Jon Ritchie, Tyrone Wheatley,
Randy Jordan, Terry Kirby and Zack Crockett, a group that prides
itself on its resilience. "Except for [four-year veteran]
Ritchie, we've all been in the league at least seven years and
gone through hard times, so we appreciate working together,"
Garner says.

Now that he's in the playoffs for the first time since 1996,
Garner hopes the Raiders continue to play like a rejuvenated
team when they travel to New England for Saturday night's
divisional playoff against the AFC East-champion Patriots.
"People had fallen out of love with us, but all we had to do was
get our guns pointed straight again, and we did that," Garner
said. "Now we're right in the middle of the race."

And Nari might have to wait awhile longer for that visit to Chuck
E. Cheese's.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Rush hour The bursts of the elusive Garner (25) helped open the passing lanes for Rice.